Intelligent and Comprehensive Training for Distance Runners


When the days get shorter, snow and sleet are not far away. With the prospect of poor footing and several months until spring, many runners make winter running a low priority. If you are serious about your racing in the warmer months, however, the winter is a critical portion of your yearly running plan. Winter running can give you a competitive advantage over your weaker-willed competition. While they come up with excuses why not to run (too dark, too slippery, too windy, too cold), you have the opportunity to develop an edge that will serve you well when racing season arrives.

During the winter you lay a foundation of endurance that you can draw upon during the rest of the year. World-class runners such as Paula Radcliffe divide the training year into chunks each with a specific purpose, and credit their summer successes to the many miles of training they put in over the winter. Forty years ago, famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard demonstrated the importance of developing a solid aerobic base during the winter. With a winterís training behind you, you can reduce your mileage during the racing season to achieve your best performances.

Before you launch into serious winter training, however, you need a chance to recover from a hard fall of racing. After a full year of training and racing, the holiday season provides the perfect opportunity for mental and physical recovery. This break allows you to indulge in holiday festivities without having to be the awkward one who cannot have any eggnog because you have to go do a set of hill repeats.

Continuing hard training around the full annual cycle year-after-year is a sure path to mediocre running. A break in discipline will do you good, and the accompanying guilt will fuel your running through the winter. For most runners, a break of 4 to 8 weeks is enough to fully recharge the batteries. Your break may consist of no running or simply cutting back your mileage by 20 to 30% and keeping high intensity sessions to a minimum. The important thing is that your muscles, tendons and ligaments have time to repair fully and you are not expending mental energy on your running.

Time of YearPrimary Running Focus
Holiday SeasonRecovery
Winter Aerobicbase building
Early SpringRace preparation
Late SpringRacing
SummerBase training/Race preparation

When you start up your winter training, your focus should be on aerobic conditioning. That means a steady diet of long runs, tempo runs, and total mileage. These sessions provide a solid aerobic grounding that lead to physiological adaptations such as increased capillary density in your muscles, increased glycogen storage and fat utilization, increased number and size of mitochondria, and improved running economy. By including tempo runs during this time you will maintain or enhance your lactate threshold and also ease the transition back to racing when spring arrives.

Training wisely through the winter

Having made the case for winter training, how can you get the most out of it? Growing up in Upstate New York, and then living for many years in New England, I have experienced the full range of Mother Natureís winter delusions. Here are a few tips to help you train hard and safely through the winter.

Take advantage of good weather: If you feel good on a sunny winter day, then allow yourself to train harder than planned. If the weather is going to dictate the footing and perhaps the safety of your runs, then you should allow flexibility in your training schedule to scale the intensity of your training up or down as necessary. Forcing yourself through a tempo run in a blizzard is a lousy idea that may leave you sick or injured, whereas deciding to do Thursdayís tempo run on Tuesday if a blizzard is forecast for Wednesday is brilliant.

Use a treadmill when necessary: Treadmills are a necessary evil. Running on a treadmill is not quite the same as running on the road, but itís a hell of a lot more specific to running than any other form of cross-training. Unless you are a treadmill veteran, you should limit your treadmill runs to general aerobic runs and recovery runs of up to 40 minutes.

Incorporate cross training: One way to be flexible with your training is to plan to do a day or two per week of cross-training, and to slot those sessions in when the weather is particularly bad. Cross training doesnít exactly replace running, but it provides variety to your training to enhance your general aerobic fitness with little risk of injury.

Shorten your stride on snow and ice: This will help keep you stable so you slip less frequently and will reduce your likelihood of falling. When you are on a secure surface again, pick up your pace and increase your stride length so a short, shuffling stride does not become a bad habit.

Remember to drink: Runners often neglect to drink enough in the winter, which can lead to cumulative dehydration after a few days. Although you sweat less in the winter, the difference is not as great as most runners believe, so you need a strategy to stay well-hydrated.

Be creative: One of my favorite winter running stories is from the early 1980ís when U.S. Olympian Dick Buerkle got on his CB radio to find a dry stretch of road between Buffalo and Rochester, New York. Dick drove out to a barren stretch of highway and did a set of 400 meter reps. Oh yeah, and the next week he broke the world indoor mile record. Dick didnít find excuses, he found a dry stretch of road.

(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)